Sunday, August 24, 2014

mini-reviews: catching up with 2014 (plus bonus 2013)

Hasee Toh Phasee
SO GOOD. A heroine who is a complete, complex, smart, funny, imperfect person—and by imperfect I mean full of conflicting needs and passions, not just "falls down endearingly in front of the hero." And a hero who's an actual nice guy whose struggles are equally empathetic. That scene when he opens the door of the room where she's been hiding just breaks my heart—there is such love in it, and so many films would have played that moment as humor or pity rather than the moment of very precious affection and understanding that this film chooses. 
For all the misleading/inappropriate "SHE SO CRAZY" style promotion this movie has (the DVD cover, for example), the romance in it is utterly natural and makes so much sense. There’s nothing cuckin’ frazy [note from Editor Self: UGH] about it.   

Gunday (did not finish)
SO BAD. What a spectacular waste of a decent concept and the charisma of Ranveer Singh. In the parts I could get through, I was instantly put off by the attempt in the boys' childhood to shock and awe us into being inspired by the trials that forged their devotion to one another. I can't put my finger on why this was such a disastrous take on elements that seem right at home in my kind of 70s and early 80s masala. It must also be noted that Gunday created the opportunity for this perfect text from Bastard Keith: "Irrfan is majestically apathetic in GUNDAY. Sets a new standard for no-fucks-giving." I almost wish I could have sat through enough of it to drink in that majesty. Maybe if someone makes an Irrfan supercut, I'll try it.

Total Siyapaa (fast-forwarded through some of the middle)
There's nothing wrong with Ali Zafar's latest, but there's nothing particularly right with it either. Everyone is likable but nobody engages. Maybe having so much of the story constrained to one apartment somehow sealed the lid on his not inconsiderable charm. It reminds me of a blend of elements from Seinfeld* without creating the same level of humor and even a runtime that clocks in as stingy for a mainstream Hindi film is too long to be about nothing.

* It's actually a remake of the Spanish film Only Human, which I saw long enough ago that I didn't notice the resemblance (you'd think the soup would have done it!), but reading a plot summary makes the connection quite clear.

Ankhon Dekhi
This is such an interesting and emotional film, and I applaud Rajat Kapoor for creating an intricate environment for both characters and audiences to live with different philosophies and for filling it with such amazing actors. My heart soared with the father-daughter love, squished with the young romance, wept for the brothers, and sank at the end. 
Initially I was frustrated that the central character made such a huge, shockwave-sending decision out of what turned out to be a relatively small incident. But who am I to decide whether someone could have a blistering realization and change his life because of what he's witnessed? More of us should, given the state of the world, but we should probably do so with more true consideration for others than this otherwise gentle, sympathetic man did. Raje Bauji lives by a spin on the golden rule, treating others as he assumes they should be treated following from his own life-altering principle, and I think he values ideas (his own epistemological theory, specifically) over people. A mindset that begins in moments of genuine kindness to others ends up a disaster of solipsism. 

(Aside: Namit Das, you guys.)

Main Tera Hero 
Flip the switch of your critical thinking off and your Varun Dhawan appreciation on, on, on. I'd never have made it through this film if I hadn't. On paper, all the main male characters in this film are despicable; even just in their personal lives, they are liars, bullies, thugs, and extortionists. The first fifteen or twenty minutes are odious, setting up the worst kind of smug, entitled, proudly stupid jerk as the hero, the kind who becomes the desired romantic match because he, unlike the baddie, hasn't shot someone yet. 
Yet in struts Varun (actually, he's reclining on a motorcycle that is moving without him having to do anything, just as Ranveer Singh did in Ram Leela), owning this movie like the birthright it is, and we're off to the races. This isn't my kind of comedy at all, but he and Ileana D'Cruz have some physical gags that work well, and post-interval it's easy enough to coast along with the silliness and forget that these characters have inhabited and inflicted some incredible violence (despite all the action happening in the gang boss's house). 

Amrita and I have been discussing how this year's film keep inverting what we thought we knew and liked: we're truly enjoying the kids from Student of the Year (which we thought was terrible), we're wowed by Kangana Ranaut, Abhishek looks like the best part of Happy New Year (who is a favorite but whose choices lately have not excited me), and we want to see a Sonam Kapoor remake of a Rekha classic. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!

2 States
This is my first experience with Chetan Bhagat in any form (except being at the wrong end of a mighty brain on tv) (no, I haven't seen 3 Idiots, nor do I wish to) and I am not impressed. This film is a very nicely presented slice of the lowest common denominator of humor and stereotypes. It's shallow, tiresome, and far too long. Between this and Gunday, I'm done with Arjun Kapoor. Maaaan, do something resembling anything with your voice and face. [Note from Editor Self: this is one of the best scenes in American cinema.] I'm also very concerned about these two kids because they spent all their years at IIM making, by their own admission, absolutely no other friends. That does not bode well for their future in dealing with the rest of the world that is not comprised of each other. 

*** Bonus 2013 films that I finally watched! ***

Ram Leela
Wowee! I love this, much to my surprise, as I am not a fan of the usually self-indulgent Sanjay Leela Bhansali and switched off his previous film after only 20 minutes. For once his theatricality and extravagance serve the story and the audience. Leela and Ram live such scrutinized lives, surrounded by audiences all the time, that of course they act like people in a heavily scripted drama. For all the skin show, they are eventually (and appropriately) smothered by all those textiles...and walls, weapons, and flunkies. The world created is complete, as is their isolation from the beneficial effects of anything other than their own insular culture. The internet, cell phones, porn, an engagement to an outsider, years spent in the big city: none of this enables them to escape. This is a staggering text for anyone wanting to look at representations of cultural systems, gender, and power, and I think that in the decades ahead this will hold up as an example of what cinema in 2013 could do. 

Bullett Raja
Although I actually watched the whole thing, Saif Ali Khan's non-Shakespearean attempt at UP badassery is a bit like Gunday in that it has 70s and 80s masala elements—bhai-bhai friendship, slight detours into religion, corrupt politicians, even the random switch in action to Calcutta (which is  basically an extended song-teleport)—but just does not work for me. He and Jimmy Shergill have excellent camaraderie, but that is not enough to sustain the whole film. Especially after interval, it just drags in an endless cycle of kill, revenge, kill, revenge, kill kill kill. Sonakshi Sinha's character is surely the most irrelevant one she's played yet; supercop Vidyut Jamwal seemed to be in a completely different movie, and not in an "oh that's an interesting contrast" type of way. It has a some good moments: some of the visuals of the streets, the trio's excitement at being in Mumbai for the first time, Saif's throwaway line beckoning Jimmy with "Aao, mere Shashi Kapoor." I adore Saif and appreciate his experiments into different kinds of heroes and villains (sympathetic and not, mainstream and not, comic and dramatic) and wanted this to be so much better, but unless you're a Saif or Jimmy completist, there's no reason to watch it.
And I liked the chair dance. (I can't find "Satake Thoko" as it appears in the movie, unfortunately.)  
Side note: to my naive ear it seems Saif is using a different type of Hindi than he uses in his more urbane roles. Comment?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Aabra Ka Daabra

(The screen grabs are from the 3D version of the film, so they look awful here.)

"A Hindi version of Harry Potter ca. 2004" seems like sufficient description, but even after watching the amazing reports on the film from both Pretentious Movie Reviews* and Neon Harbor's Deja View**, I still didn't quite realize what I was in for. It does tick certain boxes dictated by basic Harry Potter elements and Bollywood standards: moppets in uniforms, a blonde bully, both helpful and mean adults at the school of magic, an airborne sporting event, filial loyalty, family vengeance, useless comic relief, grating child actors, big dance numbers, plenty of familiar faces,
and a frankly more awesome than anticipated villain lair with a fanged entryway flanked by vaguely Ashoka-capital-esque pillars.
It also throws in much, much more, like imported glamor;
Though maybe I shouldn't assume combodia is videshi?
the twin of Shania Twain's outfit from "That Don't Impress Me Much";
kids who don't realize that a genuine Unnecessarily Bengali Professor***
would never volunteer for a physical altercation;
Advanced Regional Stereotypes must not have been taught last term.
a terrifying inflatable knock-off Spider-Man;
mean-spirited jokes based on darker-skinned people, non-traditional women, the overweight, and punching people in the face even though this is ostensibly a film for children;
and a friendly ghost whose shape and hat bring to mind Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.

But the weirdest part of all—because honestly none of what I've listed above is that weird, since this is sort of B-grade Bollywood—is that  the evil principal/sorceress (aka RB)'s plan to rule the world is by forcing our hero (Shanu)'s father (Rahul), also a magician, to create...plague? a grain fungus that will create food shortages? a poison distributed by radio-controlled locusts? No. An aphrodisiac.
The subtitles state this over and over again, so that's the idea I operated under, and I gotta tell you, it re-orients the tone of this movie considerably, adding a nagging feeling of "Soooo...is this...sexual?" to much of what RB does. In one very obvious example, Rahul tells her she needs to become a more virtuous woman (eyeroll), and she replies saucily "I'm a woman, not a stone." She uses her magic wand to swap his prisoner togs for a sheer shirt à la SRK in "Suraj Hua Maddham", give herself a fringed bikini top, and then conjure up some sort of item-y song.
The lyrics say things like "Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give me the rhythm" and lots of "oooh aaaah."
Oh and by the way, Shanu and his friends have sneaked into the lair and see this whole song. Yuck. Later, RB watches a huge dance number performed for her birthday by members of the school, including the Flying Carpet teacher (Archana Puran Singh) (MS. BRAGANZA AH-HAAAAAAA) dressed in an abs-baring silver top doing lots of showgirl shimmies. 
I couldn't stop giggling when Shanu gets a powerful magic wand and his two female friends admire and stroke it lovingly. I'M SORRY. You know how Bollywood loves to claim its films are pure as snow when song sequences in particular are dripping with innuendo, thrusting, moaning, etc. It's really not that much of a stretch to imagine some of that got rolled into film aimed at kids.

However, when the topic of this potion comes up again in the big brawl at the end of the film, in which various characters are almost killed and this potion restores them, it's clear that in fact it's a potion for eternal life. I went back and tried to isolate what the Hindi word being subtitled as "aphrodisiac" was, and sure enough, even I can understand that a term with "amar" and "jeevan-" in it probably has more to do with death and life than with prem and ishq.
Apparently I was too busy looking at her hat to notice this subtitle the first time through.
Eternal life is much less interesting, don't you think? Now I'm really curious if any Hindi movies do have villains whose plans for world domination hinge on an aphrodisiac. Seems as likely as anything else.

In the Deja View link above, the host says Aabra Ka Daabra adds a whole new dimension to the Harry Potter universe, and I can appreciate the sort of fanfic/riffing/masala blender qualities this film could have. I don't particularly care about Harry Potter, so apart from a vague academic interest in what the makers would try to copy, whether/how they would add in standard masala elements, at what the overall point of the film might seem to be, I wasn't expecting too much, and that's also where I wound up. If nothing else, though, the film is an exemplar of reach exceeding grasp, a frequent ingredient in any conversation about remakes, translations, and "so bad it's good." Bollywood could have done an acceptable spin on Harry Potter stories; this film's problems are not so much the effects and visual design—though personally I'd prefer Babubhai Mistry to computerized tricks that have aged badly—as the inconsistent writing and godawful acting. If this had been populated with kids as talented as those in films like Taare Zameen Par and Stanley Ka Dabba and a director adept at working with them, and if the adult performers had been less hammy and theatrical, it could have been cute. Not amazing, and not particularly memorable, but timepass. It's not the film's fault, but I am left with the sad realization that the most interesting thing about it was actually a misunderstanding. 

* You know what this is, right? Right.
** You may not know what this is. It's my friend Ed's series on foreign remakes of American and British blockbusters, his area of special expertise. Last week we watched Sangharsh, aka Bollywood's Silence of the Lambs, and I'm pretty sure I'll never be the same again.
*** Term courtesy of Pretentious Movie Reviews. I'm kind of sad that the four Bengali professors I know are not unnecessarily so and thus I have no reason to call them this.